A Family Fights for School Choice
In Chicago, the Jenkinses are suing for vouchers to buy a better education for their children
BOTH John and Michelle Jenkins consider themselves law-abiding, patriotic citizens. But two years ago they defiantly pulled their two school-age children out of the crime-ridden public school in their neighborhood and enrolled them at a better city school on Chicago's north side.Skip to next paragraph
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"We just wanted our children to have a quality education," says Mrs. Jenkins. Now the family is taking its plea for better education to the courts. They are the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit charging that the Chicago schools have denied poor students a "high quality" education, as called for in the state constitution.
"To have the kids in the inner city denied access to the same quality education as more affluent Americans is a travesty," Mr. Jenkins says. "It's immoral. People in this community don't love their children any less than anybody else."
Ten-year-old Noreen and seven-year-old John III used to attend Grant Elementary School just across the street from Rockwell Gardens, the public-housing project where the family lives on the west side of Chicago.
"It's the Wild West," Mr. Jenkins says of the neighborhood. Drug dealing is rampant, and gunfire echoes through the streets. Grant Elementary isn't immune from crime either. "I saw open drug sales in the school," he says. Gang violence frequently spills over to the school grounds.
Students at the school consistently score below the state average on standardized tests. When Noreen was in second grade, she brought home the same worksheet in January that she received in September, recalls her mother.
"My kids went across the street hungry ... to learn," Mr. Jenkins says. Before long they both began to dread school.
The family couldn't afford to move, so they started looking into magnet schools or other special programs. "We tried to go the regular route the way we were supposed to," Mrs. Jenkins says. Nothing was available.
"You have to be on some kind of endangered species list or something to get your child in a better school," Mr. Jenkins says.
Noreen began making up excuses to stay home. "I kept questioning myself: `Why am I sending her over there every day when she learns more at home?' " says her mother.
The Jenkinses' apartment may well contain more educational material than the average inner-city classroom. Cardboard replicas of the solar system and a world globe hang from the living-room ceiling. Educational posters and maps line the walls.
"We are the primary educators of our children," points out Mr. Jenkins. "We want the best possible citizens, that's what we want," he says of his four children.
"And if we can't get help from the school across the street to do that, then we're going to go wherever we can to try and make sure it happens."
Out of desperation, the Jenkinses decided to use false documentation to enroll Noreen and John at Ogden Elementary School on the affluent north side. "I had no other choice," says Mr. Jenkins.
When asked what she'd like to be when she grows up, Noreen, a serious, thoughtful fifth-grader, doesn't hesitate. "There are about a million things," she says. "One is an astronaut, or a baby doctor, or a chemist."
"She has all these interests," says her mother. "And I think that if she expresses this to me and I do absolutely nothing about it, then you can call me a negligent parent."